Fire in Holy Trinity Church
Sunday 30 September/Monday 1 October 1973
In 1973, the church, which had been disused since 1961, was returned to the original owners, the Corporation of Trinity House. Trinity House then leased the building for 99 years to the Southwark Rehearsal Hall Trust, set up by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra to provide them with rehearsal space. The Trust appointed Ove Arup as architects to restore and convert the church. Work was due to begin on 1 October 1973.
In the night, residents were woken to the sight, sound and smell of burning:
Vivian (28 TCS): I was nine months pregnant and so not sleeping well. In the early hours, I was awake and saw a bright light through the window. We realised that there was a fire in the church but there was no sign of a fire engine. My husband, Alan, rang 999 – it was engaged. By the time we got through, the fire engines were arriving.
Heather (Flat 5, 31): I woke to a funny smell. I looked out of the back of the house and saw flakes of black ‘snow’ drifting down. I then looked from the front and saw that the church was ablaze. We went downstairs to watch from the pavement. Lots of neighbours were outside watching. Some had woken their children to watch, but we left ours asleep. I remember firemen in teams holding huge hoses, which reminded me of wartime films. The next day we saw that all the copper from the roof had melted.
Celia (33): We were afraid that the wind was blowing the fire our way and that we would have to move our children out. Michael went to wake our friends in 14.
Richard (Flat 2, 14): The doorbell for our flat and then for Flat 3 rang in the night, but we ignored it. Then the inner flat doorbell rang and it was Chris from upstairs, telling us to get up and see the fire. I went out on to the pavement to see better with a crowd of other residents. There were, I think, 26 fire engines and two mobile canteens.
Lesley (Flat 2, 14): I stayed in the flat and watched from the window in case the children woke up. I remember huge flames shooting up when the roof fell in.
Helen (Flat 1, 22): The main sensation I remember was the heat of the fire through the windows of our flat.
Judy (Flat 3, 22): Being experienced sailors, we tried to judge which way the wind was blowing to see if the fire would reach our flat. We got as far as finding the suitcases, ready to evacuate. When we thought it was safe, we went out on to the pavement, which was packed with neighbours. I particularly remember Richard [Exton] in his dressing gown.
Paddy (Flat 4, 44): We had a grandstand view of the whole show from our top flat. I remember shreds of flaming debris shooting up through the tower.
Chris (Flat 3, 14): I stood outside watching for hours on end. The fire was less traumatic than many others (for instance in wartime) because the church wasn’t anyone’s home and neither people nor personal possessions seemed to be at risk. It was a bit like a November 5th bonfire. I’m pretty sure no one was hurt.
Liz (Flat 2, 31): We put our coats on over our pyjamas and went out on to the pavement, even though we were told not to. I remember being intrigued to see who wore curlers in bed and who came out of which flat doors together.
The next day
The fire burned until the next morning and firemen stayed all day playing water on the building .
Angela (Flat 3, 14): I was in Guy’s Hospital that night and unable to sleep. The nurses told me about the fire and I watched with them from the ward window. The next day, I had to go to the Lambeth Hospital for a scan and the ambulance driver took me round the square to see the damage.
Joyce (30): I was away that night. When I arrived home the next day, my flat was full of the smell of burning, which lasted for days and days. The little boy in the flat opposite was very excited and was rushing about in a helmet pretending to be a fireman.
Emily (Flat 2, 14): I was aged nearly 5 and had just started full-time school. I don’t remember much about the fire except that, at school the next day, I drew a picture of it, carefully using red, orange and yellow crayons. [Unfortunately, we only have the black and white version available.]
What caused the fire?
Robert (Flat 1, 22): At dusk one day, a few days before the fire, I noticed some smoke coming out of the door of the crypt, which was on the east side of the church. (The steps leading to the crypt side door were filled in when the church was restored after the fire.) I went down the steps and found two little boys (ten- or eleven-year-olds, I suppose) and a smoking mattress in one of the bays of the crypt. They were trying to put the fire out, but I bundled them out of the crypt to make sure they were safe and then got out myself. By then, someone had called the fire brigade, who put out the fire.
I supposed at the time that the boys had started that fire – boys like playing with fire in the dark. And it is exciting if a fire engine comes. Did they come back another day and try again?